Weather

In Anchorage, June’s record heat and little rain ramp up holiday weekend fire risk

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Anchorage saw temperatures spike above 60 degrees every day in June for the first time in recorded history. The city also experienced near record low precipitation: Only 1/10 of an inch of rain fell the entire month.

Even as the month’s series of hot, sunny days in Anchorage made for ideal hiking, four-wheeling and camping, the abnormally warm weather ramped up already high concerns about wildfire danger as Alaskans and visitors head out to recreate in tinder-dry woods.

The extreme dryness has helped wildfires across the state grow rapidly, prompting officials on Thursday to request additional resources from the Lower 48 to help combat the blazes. Increased fire danger will continue as more hot, dry conditions persist through the Fourth of July weekend.

The smoke moved into Southcentral Alaska early this week as well, prompting an air quality advisory. A smoky haze from Interior fires shrouded the Chugach Mountains around Anchorage and Mat-Su on Thursday morning.

In the Interior, smoke was so heavy that unhealthy air conditions were reported throughout the region. Visibility was less than a mile and the National Weather Service warned that drivers should slow down.

Fire danger is expected to continue through the weekend: Red flag warnings and fire weather watch advisories were issued in several areas of the state where conditions worsened as gusty winds moved into the picture.

Anchorage may not see noticeable rain until next week.

The municipality and the Kenai Peninsula will likely see increased cloud cover move in Saturday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Kaitlyn O’Brien. The clouds will bring lower temperatures and slightly decrease fire danger there, but the system is not expected to move into other portions of the state.

Slight precipitation is possible in some areas of the Kenai Peninsula, but O’Brien said Anchorage may not see any rain until near the middle of next week — and it’s too early to tell with certainty what will happen.

Conditions this summer are eerily similar to those this time of year in 2019, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Nearly 2.6 million acres of land burned that year, including a large area on the Kenai Peninsula that resulted in thick, heavy smoke clinging to Southcentral Alaska. Anchorage hit nearly 90 degrees in early July of 2019 — the first time a temperature that high had ever been recorded.

Overall temperatures this year aren’t record-breaking, Thoman said, but they’re close. Anchorage had its second-warmest June on record, falling just behind 2019. The municipality’s top five warmest Junes have all happened within the past nine years.

“The climate change fingerprint is on the scales there,” he said.

Just as concerning for fire danger, Anchorage will rank in the top three lowest recorded levels of rainfall for June, Thoman said.

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Very high fire danger around Alaska prompted the State Fire Marshal’s Office to suspend the use of personal fireworks throughout much of the state, including the Kenai Peninsula, Matanuska-Susitna, Denali and Fairbanks North Star boroughs, as well as the Copper River Basin, Delta Junction, Tok and the Upper Tanana Valley.

[Fireworks use suspended across much of Alaska as fire danger remains high]

By Thursday, 364 fires had burned more than 1.6 million acres this season across the state. About 160 of those fires were considered active.

Several lightning-sparked Interior fires have prompted evacuation notices as flames creep closer to cabins.

Most of the structures in the evacuation zone near the more than 20,000-acre Minto Lakes Fire northwest of Fairbanks were recreational cabins only accessible by boat, said Lanien Livingston, a spokeswoman with the Fairbanks North Star Borough. That included 42 structures in the Chatanika River Corridor, west of Shovel Creek and in the Murphy Dome Launch area.

The borough has an emergency shelter ready to stand up if needed, she said. Several areas were on alert that conditions could rapidly change, so residents should be prepared to leave if conditions worsen. Evacuation zones are detailed in an online map and Livingston said residents nearby should subscribe to wildfire alerts by texting FNSBWildFire2022 to 67283.

Near Anderson, the Clear Fire had burned more than 25,000 acres and prompted evacuation notices for a number of subdivisions outside of that city. There are 65 structures in the recommended evacuation zone, said Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker. Many of the buildings are not primary residences, he said, but about 55 people stay there in the summer.

The area has been hit by fires several times in the past and some people were choosing to remain at their homes despite concerns for resident safety as the fire shifted Thursday, Walker said. Officials are not forcing any evacuations. Several people who had been waiting out the blaze left their homes when the fires shifted, he said.

Shelters were set up by the Denali Borough in Healy and Nenana, but Walker said only one person had used the resources this week. Others were staying with friends and family or driving to Fairbanks.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, focusing on breaking news. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota and previously helped cover the Nebraska Legislature for The Associated Press. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.

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